Book Review: Picture In The Sand by Peter Blauner
It’s 2014 when young Alex decides to ditch his plans of going to Cornell University in order to join a terrorist group fighting in Syria instead. As an Arab American kid growing up in the aftermath of 9/11, he’s long felt ostracized by his own nation. Too much unsupervised Internet time leads to his recruitment by terrorists, who come up with a plan to help him travel to the Middle East. He sends his family a farewell email, asking them to never contact him again.
Of course, his frantic family ignores this request, but it’s perhaps his grandfather Ali, the first member of their family to immigrate to America, who has the best chance at reconnecting with his idiot grandson. Ali was once a disaffected youth too, and recognizes the urge that would turn a young man toward violence and destruction, having felt it himself so many decades ago:
I wanted to feel strong instead of broken. I pictured high-velocity shock waves […] destabilizing the structure and causing it to come crashing down, flimsy as a house of matchsticks, nails and planks flying, the giant brought to its knees, collapsing in a mighty thundercloud and leaving only smoldering wreckage.
My pulse began to quicken as I imagined being part of something so momentous and devastating. I would not have to think of myself as a loser who had disgraced himself in Sinai. Who wouldn’t want to be a warrior instead?
Once upon a time, Ali was an Egyptian teenager dreaming of making movies in Hollywood. When he hears that the legendary Cecil B. DeMille himself is coming to the country to film The Ten Commandments, he does everything he can to attach himself to the production. With the help of his dad, a caddy for rich tourists, he manages to get hired as an assistant to the famous director, a position well beyond his wildest dreams. He’s ready to make the most of it, hoping to impress DeMille enough to launch his own career in film.
But a terrible accident on his very first day on the job puts both himself and the production in jeopardy, even before they’re summoned to meet Egypt’s new de facto leader. Gamal Abdul Nasser has overthrown President Mohamed Naguib, and is scrutinizing every single one of his predecessors’ contracts, including the agreement to let DeMille film. He puts the Americans, and Ali, on notice that he’s watching their every move.
As Ali spends time escorting DeMille and co from Cairo to the Sinai Peninsula to Alexandria, he begins to grow more and more disillusioned with these people he’d once dreamed of joining. It doesn’t help that the young woman he’s been in love with since their first meeting in college is paying more attention to the filmmakers than to himself. When his firebrand cousin Sherif approaches him with an offer and a threat – help Sherif and the Muslim Brotherhood destroy DeMille’s film set or have Sherif reveal the truth behind the accident he was involved with – he doesn’t know how to say no. He isn’t even sure that he wants to.
Decades later, Ali is finally ready to come clean about this dark time in his life, hoping that sharing his own misgivings and heartache with his grandson will persuade the latter to abandon violence and the inevitable misery that comes with it. He attempts to draw parallels between his own plight and the increasingly tenuous circumstances Alex eventually admits to finding himself in, as the young man’s flight to Syria turns out not to be as courageous or noble as he imagined. Working with this, Ali admits that he had his own fear-filled reasons for staying a course he increasingly doubted:
After all, Naguib still had the title of president and there were more than a million Muslim Brothers in the country. If they were inspired to rise up in revolt, he might regain power and put Nasser in chains. Even in my hopeless fallen state, I recognized my own self-interest in this. Under a new Ikhwan-backed regime, I might be marked for death as a traitor. Unless I could show some value as an asset.
Peter Blauner has delved deeply into the history and culture of both Egypt and Hollywood filmmaking to produce this remarkable tale of a grandfather trying to save his grandson from going down the same ruinous path he once flirted with himself. The depiction of 1950s Egypt is colorful and persuasive, as is the description of the festering frustrations in the heart of barely adult men who feel that they’re owed power and respect. The characterizations otherwise can sometimes feel flat, but there’s no denying the passion and genuine care that drive this historical, generation-spanning thriller.